Jerusalem's downtown disaster

Jerusalem's Clal Center in the 80s Photo: Architect Dan Eitan
Jerusalem's Clal Center in the 80s Photo: Architect Dan Eitan

The Clal Center is a brutal architectural icon, and a commercial failure, which is alienated from its surroundings.

An Israel Planners Conference conducted last week in the Clal Center in Jerusalem reminded professionals of one of the least popular buildings in Israel.

Since it was built in 1978, no one has had anything good to say about it. It is an alien implant in the Nachlaot neighborhood and the city center, where construction is low-rise, and it presents alienated and enclosed, some will say ugly, architecture in its interface with the street. Its internal space is unpleasant and constructed of cheap finishing materials, and it is not well maintained. In contrast to other buildings from the same period and designed in similar fashion (such as Dizengoff Center), it appears forlorn, sad, and rather abandoned.

The Clal Center is located at the midpoint of Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, not far from the Mahane Yehuda open air market and Davidka Square. The lot it occupies was the site of the Alliance Universelle school for 100 years, designed to rescue all of Jerusalem's children, not just the Jews, from poverty and ignorance.

The building was abandoned after the Six-Day War, and the Clal Center company, which was a partnership of Azorim Investment, Development and Construction Ltd. (TASE: AZRM), the Oz investment company, and businessperson Victor Carter, bought the land and hired architect Dan Eytan to design a large office and commercial building.

Eytan, now 87, is one of Israel's most experienced architects. He was a partner with Itzhak Yashar in designing the Tel Aviv Museum, the Mexico building in Tel Aviv University, the dining room of Kibbutz Givat Haim Ihud, and the Hadera Central Bus Station. The team also jointly designed the Victory neighborhood in Dimona and Neighborhood A (Hanahalim), including a 14-story tower, in Jaffa. Among other things, he designed the national Israel Police headquarters in Sheikh Jarrah and Migdal Ha'ir in Talitha Kumi Square in Jerusalem.

My meeting with Eytan took place in the office he shares with his wife, architect Ruth Lahav, in the Nitsba Tower on Yitzhak Sadeh Street in Tel Aviv. "In post-1967 Jerusalem, there was no center on the same scale. There was no shopping mall, no mixture of uses, no transparent elevators, and no perspective of a building as part of a whole central urban environment.

"The design concept for the project, after much hesitation, was a system of internal streets developing around a spiral internal center on half-floors rising in levels to four commercial floors and a basement serving as the building's center. Due to the topographic conditions, pedestrian entry is facilitated on different levels from the surrounding streets. The design created an architectural spiral with galleries around providing a view of all areas, and creating central experience in the building."

When I ask Eytan to explain the fact that the building he designed amounts to a failure, he attributes it to lack of cooperation from the planning agencies in the municipality, which refused to recognize that the building's success required the designing of its environment, and mainly to unsuccessful, and even negligent, management on the part of people in the Clal company: "I went to the CEO of Clal and told him that I thought that something bad was happening in this project, that its manager was leading it in the wrong direction. I even gave him examples involving the choice of functions, the choice of uses, the choice of materials, the quality of finishing, everything."

"He listened to me, and said, 'I give my managers a rope; sometimes, they look at it.' After three months, he fired the person responsible for the project, Shmuel Dechner, who later became a key figure and state's witness in the Holyland affair. His replacement was Avigdor Kelner, who served time in prison in that affair. The municipality stood aside, saying nothing and providing no guidance."

The location dictates success or failure

Dr. Zvi Elhyani, manager if the Israel Architecture Archive and an expert on Israeli architecture, explains that the building can be praised, because in contrast to other buildings built in the Jerusalem at that time, for example in the Jewish Quarter of the Old City in the Gilo and Ramot neighborhoods, there was no attempt to create a purportedly modern style. On the other hand, he does not hesitate to say that it would have been better had the structure never been built: "Starting in the late 1960s, you can see the entry of mega-structures into the city. You can see the Negev Center in Beer Sheva and Dizengoff Center and the new Tel Aviv Central Bus Station. Cities are beginning to realize that in order to grow, there is no alternative to consolidating small sections and building complexes that combine commerce, offices, and residences.

"By the nature of things, the location dictates success or failure. What was successful in Tel Aviv will not necessarily succeed in the heart of Jerusalem."

"Globes": Is the architectural style connected to the building's success?

Elhyani: "This is very successful example of brutalism that does not know how to win. During those same years, the Nadler Nadler Bixon Gil architectural firm designed the Jerusalem Theater, but with great artistry. The Clal Center never succeeded, even for one moment after it was built, and did not justify its existence. This is one of the types of brutalist buildings that we could have done without."

Published by Globes [online], Israel Business News - - on March 18, 2018

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2018

Jerusalem's Clal Center in the 80s Photo: Architect Dan Eitan
Jerusalem's Clal Center in the 80s Photo: Architect Dan Eitan
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